Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Wei Tang
4 (out of 5) Globes
Michael Mann is an artist now. When he started out he was a cutting edge populist. As an executive producer on “Miami Vice” (and later the director of its underrated film), he helped craft the style — both aesthetically and sartorially — of the time. As he’s gotten older his work has grown increasingly abstract, where plot and especially characterization have taken backseats to explorations of cinematic style. There’s no reason to futz over the details of the plot in “Blackhat,” his latest and most thrillingly abstract action film to date. Neither should onechide it for boasting an uncharacteristically buff and babish actor (Chris Hemsworth) as a guy who spends all his time pounding away on computers. Neither of these bugs Mann, nor, theoretically, should it bug you.
Mann also no longer seems to care about storytelling, but that doesn’t mean “Blackhat”’s story is complicated. There are mysterious cyber criminals afoot, ones so dangerous that it brings together agents from America and China — convenient, that, since both nations are now moviemaking bed buddies. But agents played by Viola Davis and Taiwanese superstar musician Wang Leehom aren’t strong enough to stop them; they have to unleash from prison a super-hacker played by Chris Hemsworth, who’s introduced shirtless, as he’ll occasionally be for the rest of the movie. Hemsworth’s Nicholas Hathaway is a classic Mann hero: anguished, fearless, self-destructive, mumbly and well-dressed (though here mostly tight, sweaty shirts). He’s a male model with a gun (and later a knife).
Nicholas is a character out of time, and so — despite the topicality of its look at tech — is the movie. Along for the globetrotting ride is Leehom’s sister, played by fellow “Lust, Caution” star Wei Tang. She’s there largely so Nicholas has a reason to fire off heated stares. She tends to stand back during the periodic — and reliably violent — fights and shootouts. Davis fares only a bit better. Mann has never really known what to do with women, who tend to be classic damsels in distress, winding up in harm’s way when they try to play in a man’s (or Mann’s) world.
This would be more perturbing if it wasn’t part and parcel of what is a distinct and stubborn worldview, one not so much sexist as simply unsure how to integrate women as something other than love objects. Mann is who he is, and what’s most striking about him at this point is the rough poetry of his images. He was an early adopter of video, back when it still looked splotchy. Video has long been able to pass for film, yet Mann still insists on a stock that at times looks digital. He doesn’t want video to aspire to something “better.” He loves that look; he loves the “imperfections,” and the way that it looks like anyone, even those without money, could have shot it.
The near-consumer grade quality of the stock makes the shoot-outs seem more present, as though they were really happening. They look like home video, but home video from a couple tech generations ago, only featuring real actors and a real budget. As in his “Miami Vice” film, the cameras push uncomfortably close to actors and their guns, and the firing doesn’t sound polished and Dolby-ized but real, even mundane. It’s not mere stubborn shtick; the mundanity only heightens the danger, underlining how easily and quickly characters can get killed. And they get killed. Mann isn’t afraid to wipe out key supporting characters, even if his top-billed players aren’t in any real danger. (The big exception is “Heat,” where either lead, or neither, or both, could be taken out come film’s end.)
This isn’t to say Mann’s films aren’t beautiful in a more classical way. The colors of his films — piss yellow, neon green and blue, dark browns — are all over “Blackhat.” At times he embraces the present, creating purely computerized images that nonetheless massage the eyes. The opening, in which the mainframe at a Chinese factory is taken over by invading hacker signals, is not unlike the lightshow in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” soaring over glowing wires, materializing spaces that in the real world only exist in the abstract. “Blackhat” is a world of dingy urban locales and terrifying open spaces — places intended to appeal to the senses, not the brain. It’s a film not about details and particulars but about mood and sensations.
And yet “Blackhat” is lousy with details. None of them matter, not really. They’re there to deliberately confuse you — to make you feel as though things are flying out of control, too complicated to solve. When it cuts loose, usually in action scenes, it feels even scarier. There are a number of shootouts, some more intense and bloody than others, but it makes perfect sense that a film about online life — that which we can’t see but grapple with at nearly all times — ends in a brutal knifefight. That’s a good joke in a film that’s resoundingly, admiringly humorless. It’s tough imagining anyone who’s not already on-board with Mann’s formal experimentation getting anything out of “Blackhat,” which could be said to be a shame since it, like all of his films, cost many, many boatloads of money to make. Those trying to follow the plot or find specific characters worth caring about will leave “Blackhat” frustrated, even angry. But its charms are elsewhere.